Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Housekeeping and Happy New Year

I'll be ringing in 2020 tonight, and with then be heading to Louisiana for a few days of post-holiday vacation. As well as being the last post of 2019, this will also likely be my last entry for awhile. There are now officially less than three months remaining until Corinne's and my wedding, and preparing for that event is going to take up an increasing amount of my spare time between now and then (that, in fact, I one of the reasons we are heading to Louisiana this weekend).

But before I do that, a few housekeeping/meta-blogging items I've meant to take care of but haven't done so until now:

First, in keeping with a tradition of archiving family obituaries on this blog, I'm (finally) posting my grandfather Horace Gray's obituary, which I have retroblogged to the day of his passing, August 9, 2000. Hard to believe that he will have been gone twenty years this coming summer.

I'm also making a couple of changes to the blogroll on the right side of this page, starting with my college football links. Since Deadspin has been gutted by its new corporate overlords, it no longer warrants a link. The Every Day Should Be Saturday folks have moved on to the Banner Society (the final post on EDSBS - a dissertation combining life, college football and "Free Bird" - being absolutely epic), so I am replacing the former with a link to the latter.

Finally, and with a bit of sadness, I have deleted my "Dubai" blogroll. As much fun as it was to have played a (small) part of that city's blogosphere a dozen or so years ago, the simple fact is that Dubai is no longer part of my life. I was last there over seven years ago, I am no longer at a job that requires me to travel there, and I doubt I will be heading back there for any reason anytime soon. Furthermore, most of the blogs I linked to have either become dormant (an exception being Alexander McNabb's  Fake Plastic Souks) or their writers have moved.

Everybody be safe tonight, and may you have a wonderful 2020!

Defining a decade

Today is the last day of 2019, meaning that the argument we have every ten years is back again:
As January 1, 2020, approaches, everyone is reflecting about the past decade and the new one that awaits. "Best of the decade" lists are everywhere. #10YearChallenges are all over social media. And people are eagerly gearing up to celebrate the end of the 2010s. 
But there's a slight problem. 
We might be celebrating a year too early, at least according to some people. 
The question of when exactly the current decade ends and the new one begins seems to come up every time the year on the calendar moves from ending in 9 to ending in 0. It came up in 1989. And in 1999. Then again in 2009. And now. 
So is January 1, 2020, really the beginning of the decade? Or does it, in fact, begin a year later, on January 1, 2021?
From a mathematical standpoint, it is correct that the next decade does not begin until 2021. The Gregorian calendar does not have a "Year Zero." The Common Era (Anno Domini) begins with Year 1. Therefore, the first decade of the calendar runs from 1 CE through 10 CE, and all subsequent ten-year spans start with 1 and end with 0, as well.

That being said, from a cultural standpoint, we prefer to group decades by the tens digit, so that they start with 0 and end with 9. It's just easier to categorize years in this manner.
When we think of the 90s, we think of the period from 1990-1999. It just doesn't make sense that the year 1990 would be considered part of the 80s.
Plus, it's more satisfying to celebrate big occasions like the start of a new decade in an even-numbered year, a phenomenon that psychologists call "round number bias." Waiting until 2021 to celebrate the new decade would feel anticlimactic.
That's why Konstantin Bikos, lead editor of TimeandDate.com, says that both definitions of when the new decade begins are correct. No need to cancel your end-of-the-decade party. 
"There's two different ways of categorizing 10 years," he told CNN. "It could be from the year ending in 0 to the year ending in 9, or the year ending in 1 to the year ending in 0."
It comes down to how we talk about time spans. 
Bikos agrees that centuries and millennia always start with years ending in 1. Those time spans are typically referred to as numbered entities counted up from the year 1 AD, as in the "21st century" or the "third millennium." 
Decades are categorized by year numbers. Even though the 2020s will be the 203rd decade, no one ever calls it that. It's just called the 2020s, or the 20s.
Truth be told, this is all very arbitrary. A "decade" could be any ten consecutive orbits of the earth around the sun. 1995 through 2004 is a “decade." Our culture has simply selected years ending 0-9 to be grouped as a decade because it's easier to remember and talk about them that way.

So you will be mathematically correct if you wanted to celebrate the beginning of the 203rd decade, CE, on January 1, 2021. But the "twenties," as they will be known in popular culture, begin at midnight tonight.

Vox reviews the decade just past - what it calls the "tumultuous 2010s" - here.

Tuesday, December 03, 2019

UH wins and attendance, 2019

The downhill slide continues.

The Cougars averaged 25,518 fans per game for their five home games at TDECU Stadium* in 2019, which is a decline of 4,320 fans/game from the 2018 season. This is the lowest average attendance since the 2013 season (the year before TDECU opened) and the third consecutive year of attendance decline for the program. Since the 2016 season the program has lost an average of 13,436 fans per game.

Coming off a four-win season and with a 2020 home slate consisting of Rice, North Texas, Tulane, Tulsa, Central Florida and South Florida, the ticket office is going to face an uphill battle in order to reverse this unfortunate trend.

*The game against Washington State at NRG Stadium is officially a neutral site, so the NCAA does not include it in our attendance totals. If we were to include it, Houston’s average attendance jumps to 28,019, which still represents an overall decline from 2018.

The countercultural cartoons of Sesame Street

A few weeks ago, venerable children's television program Sesame Street turned 50 years old. And although we might not have realized it as children, there's an awful lot about that show that reflects the time period in which it was incubated in; namely, the drug-infused counterculture late '60s and early '70s. Mike McPadden, writing in the cannabis-oriented website Merry Jane, explains:
In 1969, society’s counterculture upheaval and a drive to expand cosmic consciousness resulted in the psychedelic convergence of Woodstock and the literally spaced-out giant leap of the moon landing. 
Less audacious, but perhaps even more revolutionary, another monumental undertaking from that year channeled the era’s turned-on vibes and anything-is-possible ambitions into an ongoing source of uplift, wisdom, and inspiration for young people and, as such, humanity’s future.  
On November 9, 1969, Sesame Street debuted on PBS. Yes, the show has been on the air for exactly half a century now!
To be technical, Sesame Street didn't even premier on PBS. It premiered on NET, which was PBS's predecessor. PBS itself came into existence one year later. The entire first episode is available here (spoiler alert: Oscar the Grouch was originally orangish-brown, not green).
Unlike previous children’s TV, Sesame Street showcased a diverse array of kids, adults and, of course, Muppets in funny, heartfelt, and believable situations. It also took place in an urban setting that reflected the communities of most of the show’s audience.  
In addition, fueled by the desire to educate and enlighten in the most effective way possible, Sesame Street tapped into 1969’s heady, funky, freewheeling zeitgeist. The show empowered cutting-edge artists, writers, and musicians to create its cartoons, short films, sketches, and sing-alongs. Awash over every element of Sesame Street, as well, were the intrinsic values of love, acceptance, kindness, and inclusion.  
All that’s to say, if Sesame Street’s creators weren’t potheads themselves — although just look at Muppet-master Jim Henson; how could he not have been? — the show positively incorporated the most inspired and inspirational aspects of late-60s drug culture. 
Sesame Street, in other words, happened because the hippies of the 60s got jobs in the entertainment industry and created countercultural and psychedelic imagery under the guise of "children's television." Looking back, it was pretty obvious: would any straight-laced, sober television producer of that era really envision a children's show with a puppet cast that featured a giant canary, an orange woolly mammoth only visible to said giant canary, a green monster living in a garbage can, a blue monster with an addiction problem, and an ambiguously gay couple? The cartoons and animations interspersed between the antics of said cast only further argue the point.

The Merry Jane list features "tripped-out moments that have delighted tokers and children alike" from the entire fifty-year span of Sesame Street and is worth a full perusal.  I've limited my own trippy favorites to the 1970s, when I watched the show as a small child and well before I understood Sesame Street's peace, love and drugs provenance.

E-Imagination: this cartoon appeared in the very first episode in 1969. The watercolor animation and sitar-inflected music are transparently psychedelic. Riding an eagle, following a beagle? Far out, man! Also, the Land of Steam sounds pretty cool.

Counting Raga: Speaking of tripped-out sitar chords, how about Ravi Shankar himself providing the music for this kaleidoscopic counting animation from 1971? This cartoon was likely the first exposure many young children had to the Indian aesthetic so beloved by hippie culture.


Lost Boy Remembers His Way Home - This is what happens when a hallucination becomes a cartoon. One of the comments on this video's YouTube page says it all: "if you are a member of Generation X, your childhood entertainment was created by people who were tripping balls."

Daddy Dear - Every letter of the alphabet got its own animation on Sesame Street, and this ode to the letter "D" from 1972 is, well, delightfully druggy. Do dandelions roar? Well, maybe when you're on DMT!

Pinball Number Count - this series of cartoons (one for every number between two and twelve; all segments can be seen here) made its debut in the mid-70s; the tune, sung by the Pointers Sisters, is something any Gen-Xer living today can easily recite. As cool as the music was, the animation of a pinball rolling through a series of trippy landscapes was positively sublime. It's what happens when a pinball eats a mushroom and enters a multilevel, Alice-In-Wonderland pinball machine.

Geometry of Circles - Animated by Cathryn Aison and featuring music by composer Philip Glass, this engaging series of cartoons first appeared in 1979. The abstract, vivid mix of sound, color and geometry was as mesmerizing to elementary students getting ready for school as it was to college students coming down from an all-night LSD trip. This particular video stitches all four of the cartoons from the series into one.

New Ball in Town - This stop-motion animation of one ball trying to play with three others was supposed to teach kids the importance of inclusivity. While not as psychedelic as some of these other cartoons, the jarring red-and-purple patterns of the balls and the awesome riffs of the Moog synthesizer nevertheless produce an effect that may be especially pleasant if you're high.

The Yip Yips - While not an animation, these Martian Muppet characters were surely envisioned by Jim Henson when he was baked out of his gourd. Which is why their signature "yip yip yip yipyipyipyipyip uh-huh" dialogue is just as hilarious after a hit of the bong today as it was when you were four. When they weren't engaging in stoner antics like mistaking a clock for a human, the Yip Yips were also trying to communicate with telephones, searching for tunes on a 1930's era radio, trying to operate a fan, or visiting Ernie and Bert.

Houston 41, #24 Navy 56; 2019 season recap and look-ahead to 2020

The Cougars ended the season by hosting the Navy Midshipmen (not ranked in the College Football Playoff top 25, but #24 in the AP poll) at TDECU Stadium last Saturday night. As has been the case for much of the season, Houston was competitive in the first half. And, as has also been the case much of the season, the Cougars collapsed in the second half. The Cougars end the season by being steamrolled by a service academy for the second year in a row, and close their 2019 campaign with a 4-8 record. (They failed to meet even my modest expectations for the season.)

The Good: When they didn’t turn the ball over, the UH offense was actually very productive. Quarterback Clayton Tune was 23 of 35 for 393 passing yards and four touchdowns, including a 67-yard catch-and-run to Tre'von Bradley early in the game, a 26-yard strike to Courtney Lark, and a 22-yard pass to Marquez Stevenson on a gutsy fourth-and-nine play. Tune also scrambled for 61 yards, and running back Patrick Carr added another 56 yards and a score on the ground. All told, the Cougars amassed 527 total yards of offense. And, although the UH defense was manhandled through most of the game, they did come away with a couple of huge stops on 4th and 1.

The Bad: Alas, both of those 4th down stops were rather quickly followed by Clayton Tune interceptions. Turnovers were the story of this game for the Cougars, as Tune threw 4 picks - all of which appeared to be bad decisions into multiple coverage - and UH special teams fumbled a kickoff return. Three of these turnovers led to Midshipmen touchdowns. Special teams also missed a field goal.

The Ugly: The UH run defense. I lost count of the number of times Navy was able to dive up the middle for a long run or a score, but fullback Jamale Carothers scored on rushes of 8, 17, 75, 29, and 19 yards and ended the evening with 188 yards. Midshipman quarterback Malcom Perry had 146 rushing yards and a touchdown as well; he only attempted four passes the entire evening. UH defenders were continually out of position - it seemed as if defensive coordinator Joe Cauthen and his staff made no adjustments whatsoever during the course of the game - which allowed Navy to amass 447 rushing yards and eight rushing touchdowns.

The Absurd: After Clayton Tune's pass to Christian Trahan late in the second quarter was ruled down at the one-half yard line, the Cougars had first and goal at the 1 with a chance to take the lead with a touchdown. However, thanks to a series of botched playcalls, sacks and penalties, the Houston had to settle for a field goal from their own 20. This clusterfuck of a series was emblematic of the Coogs’ struggles this season.

What It Means: The disappointing 2019 season - the program’s worst since 2004 - has mercifully come to an end. While the Cougars were competitive in many games they played in, their lack of  depth - they oftentimes ran out of gas in the second half - as well as their glaring lack of talent on the offensive line and the defense were simply too great to overcome.

It didn't help that the Coogs faced a particularly tough schedule this fall. In addition to the fact that six of their twelve opponents were ranked in the AP top 25 at the time they met, UH also faced a grueling gauntlet of four games in 19 days to start the season. After finishing that stretch of games with a 1-3 record, head coach Dana Holgorsen took advantage of the NCAA's new redshirt rules to bench several starting members of the team, including starting quarterback D'Eriq King: a controversial decision that caused detractors to accuse him of "tanking" the season. Whether Holorgsen intentionally sabotaged the rest of the season or not, the Cougars would go on to win only three more games in 2019.

Holgorsen and his staff ended up redshirted a whopping 35 players in 2019. Time will tell if this gamble worked, but as of right now I can’t say I’m particularly excited about 2020. I'm afraid it’s going to take more than just one season to rebuild talent and depth on the offensive line, the defensive line and in the secondary. The team is furthermore going to miss departing seniors such as running back Patrick Carr, offensive lineman Josh Jones and punter Dane Roy. Other talented players, such as defensive end Isaiah Chambers, are entering the transfer portal, and I honestly expect the most notable of Holgorsen's redshirts, D’Eriq King, to transfer out as well. The Coogs’ best wide receiver, Marquez Stevenson, will likely opt for the NFL draft.

It's also worth noting that next year’s schedule is going to be just as tough as this one was. Every team the Coogs lost to at home this season - Navy, Memphis, SMU, Cinci, Washington State - they play on the road next season. The Cougars also have to face Central Florida again, South Florida replaces UConn, and there will be no FCS patsy to scrimmage against. Finally, while nobody’s going to mistake BYU for Oklahoma, the trip to be Provo is going to be hard. At least the Coogs get Tulane at home; maybe they can win that one.

Their next game will be at TDECU Stadium against Rice on Saturday, September 5, 2020. They have a lot of work to do between now and then.

On to the offseason.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Houston 24, Tulsa 14

Just when you thought the Coogs were done winning games for the season, they go to Tulsa and come back with a win, thanks mainly to surprisingly strong defensive play.

The Good: Cougar defense and special teams. The defense recovered four Tulsa turnovers, including cornerback Damarion Williams's interception of a Golden Hurricane pass for a pick six. The defense also shut down Tulsa's running game (more on this below) and sacked Golden Hurricane QB Zack Smith four times.

Early in the fourth quarter, when Tulsa scored to pull to within three, Marquez Stevenson responded with a 94-yard kickoff return for a touchdown which would end up being the game-sealing score. Punter Dane Roy, meanwhile, averaged 44.4 yards on his eight punts, keeping Tulsa pinned deep within their own side of the field for much of the game.

The Bad: Cougar offense. Quarterback Clayton Tune only completed 8 of 12 passes for 89 yards and no touchdowns (he did run for a score, which turned out to be Houston's only offensive touchdown). The UH offense was an anemic, converting only two of 13 third down attempts, and the Cougars' total offensive output of 231 yards was their lowest of the season. Tulsa spent a lot of time in Houston's backfield; while they only sacked Tune once, they did record ten tackles for loss.

The Ugly: Tulsa's running game. They had -1 rushing yard for the entire game. That's not a typo. that's "negative one." In addition to those four sacks, the Coogs recorded six TFLs.

What It Means: I wouldn't read too much into this win - Tulsa is not a good team - but it's still a bright spot to an otherwise disappointing season.

The Cougars close the season against Navy (ranked #24 in both the AP and coaches' polls) at home on Saturday.

North Texas 14, Rice 20

Last Saturday was a sunny and cool November day - a perfect afternoon for football. So I went over to Rice Stadium, hoping to see the Mean Green secure bowl eligibility with a victory over one-win Rice. Unfortunately, things didn't go as planned.

The Good: Down 20-0 at halftime, North Texas rallied to score 14 unanswered points while holding the Owls scoreless the entire second half. Quarterback Mason Fine and running back Tre Stiggers both scored rushing touchdowns, and UNT special teams recovered an Owl fumble on a punt return deep in Rice territory midway through the fourth quarter to keep hopes of a UNT win alive.

The Bad: North Texas botched the ensuing drive, as a holding penalty and three incomplete passes by Fine (who had a rather mediocre day, completing only 17 of 32 passes for 163 yards, no touchdowns and one interception) prevented the Mean Green from reaching the endzone. Rice recovered the ball on downs and ran out the clock to secure the win.

The Ugly: The first half. The Mean Green were outgained by Rice 228 yards to 51; North Texas didn't even record its first first down of the game until the 2:28 mark of the second quarter! The lone bright spot for UNT in the first half was the recovery of a Rice fumble - and they fumbled the ball back to Rice one play later!

What It Means: A 2019 season that was supposed to see North Texas compete for the C-USA west title will end in disappointment, as the Mean Green have assured themselves of a losing record. The Owls have won consecutive games for the first time since 2016.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Starchitects, high-rises and Quito

I recently wrote about the potentially transformative effect of a new subway in Quito, Ecuador. One of the subway's intended effects is to create density by encouraging more high-rise construction around stations. Architectural Digest explains how some of the world's top architects are participating in that transformation: "Initiated by an enterprising local developer and fueled by a revised zoning code and new transit-oriented development incentives, Quito is shaping up to be a starchitect’s next frontier."
The urban shift in Quito started with a relocation. In February 2013, the municipal government moved the entirety of Quito’s 1960 Mariscal Sucre International Airport from the dense residential and commercial neighborhood that had grown around it to an agricultural area 12 miles away. The previous location of the airport (now being transformed into a large park) had capped surrounding building heights at four stories. A revised zoning code now allows towers in the city up to 40 stories, though air rights must be purchased from the government.
As fun as it was to watch the planes fly overhead on their final approach to the old airport - I used to sit at the window and watch the 747s of Lufthansa and KLM, the DC-10s of Iberia, the colorful 707s of Ecuatoriana and even the droning Lockheed Electra turboprops of TAME - the flight path was rather treacherous, given the city's geography. It was also rather loud. Quito's new airport is larger, with a longer runway and a flight path the does not require you to land in the middle of a city crammed up against a volcano.
Recognizing the new potential to build taller and better, Quito-based development company Uribe & Schwarzkopf has been recruiting world famous architects with a "why not here?" attitude. For the 46-year-old, two-generation company where father Tommy Schwarzkopf and son Joseph Schwarzkopf work side by side, it became increasingly obvious that sometimes you can't do it all. For about the last 40 years, the firm had taken a design-build approach, with Tommy (a trained architect) at the helm of designing modular residential and commercial towers across the capital. The buildings are efficient, but far from radical, on a growing skyline. When Joseph came into the family company, the two hypothesized that starchitects could bring more intrigue to their projects, and Tommy says he was satisfied to hand over the design reins and accept a new development challenge. 
Thus, their firm’s first foreigner-designed tower sprung up in González Suárez, an artsy, bohemian, and increasingly affluent neighborhood on a slope. The developers called on Miami-based Arquitectonica to design the 22-story residential Yoo Quito. French designer Philippe Starck crafted the interiors and amenities, which are dotted with his furniture and inspired by the clouds the tower seems to touch. Floating above the roof terrace is a cloudlike shape of undulating aluminum panels that hides the building’s necessary mechanical systems. On the ground level, too, the tower does something new for Quito: Retail at the base engages the public with the building in a city where most private residences have a barrier to entry.
I know exactly where Yoo Quito is - on Avenida Gonzalez Suarez, between Avenida Francisco de Orellana and Calle Muros - because it is directly across the street from the small apart-hotel on Calle Muros where my family and I lived in the late 1980s when we spent our summers in Ecuador. That part of town always had high-rises, both along Gonzalez Suarez as well as Avenida 12 de Octubre. Now, if local officials have their way, the rest of the city will start going vertical as well.
The government is, however, working to increase city center density through the city's first underground metro line, whose first phase will run from north of the former airport to the southern suburbs in 2020. Explains Jacobo Herdoiza, a former secretary of territory for Quito, the hope is that upper-class residents who currently drive from the suburbs to work downtown each morning will ditch their cars for mass transit and move back to the city center. For developers, an incentive has been set in place: If you construct a new residential project within an eight-minute walk from the new metro or a five-minute walk from a bus rapid transit station, the city will pick up the tab for your air rights.
The article claims that "Quito suffers from a pedestrian-unfriendly urban streetscape." I'm not sure I would completely agree - some parts of Quito, such as the colonial center or the Mariscal Sucre district, offer a good, active pedestrian environment - but the city is otherwise mostly automobile-oriented and I recall that many Quito sidewalks were narrow, uneven or poorly-maintained, with cars in driveways blocking them, a lack of curb cuts and other accessible infrastructure, and blank, uncomfortable security walls adjacent to them. Good pedestrian infrastructure is critical to the success of transit, and this is where transit-oriented development comes in to play.
These transit-oriented development incentives convinced Uribe & Schwarzkopf to hire one of the world's most buzzy architects, Bjarke Ingels of BIG, to design two residential towers (the firm's first projects in Latin America) along the forthcoming metro line. Across from La Carolina Park, the city's most popular green space, the 32-story IQON and the 24-story EPIQ towers by the architect are quickly rising. The former is set to be the city's tallest building and has a facade that, when trees are planted on each terrace, will reflect the adjacent park. The latter takes a more historic approach to its materials: It will be constructed of concrete dyed in various shades of pink to reflect Quito's terra-cotta heritage. Green roofs atop each setback become communal terraces for residents, while the ground level is activated with retail, offices, and a restaurant, a strategy that is hoped to encourage pedestrian traffic.
To be sure, these signature starchitect luxury high-rises are only part of the transformation process. Ecuador is still a low-income country and the percentage of the population that can afford to live in them is low. In order for the process to truly work and for Quito to reach its potential as a vibrant, walkable city, a lot of less-iconic but more-affordable housing options will need to be constructed as well. But by giving famous architects a "canvas" for their designs, perhaps an impetus can be created in Quito's development community for dense, mixed-use and pedestrian-friendly construction for all income levels. As the developer Tommy Schwarzkopf explains: “A new skyline for the city is being created and a new type of citizen is emerging.”

Did I mention that it's time for me to go back to Quito?

Houston 27, #18 Memphis 45

The Coogs looked good in this one for about a quarter. Then, as has been the case all too often this season, things went downhill.

The Good: The Cougars jumped out to a 17-7 lead thanks to Marquez Stevenson's 53-yard touchdown catch and and a Clayton Tune scoring scamper of 68 yards. Cougar special teams were also a bright spot, as they blocked a Memphis punt and recovered it for a touchdown late in the game. Punter Dane Roy averaged 48.7 yards per punt, including one which pinned the Tigers on their own two yard line.

The Bad: Everything else. After the Coogs took that 17-7 lead, Memphis outscored Houston 38-3. The Cougar offense was completely shut down - they accounted for only 49 yards in the entire second half - and Memphis quarterback Brady White picked apart the UH defense for 341 passing yards and five touchdowns (he ran for another). The Cougar secondary was absolutely abysmal, with players frequently out of position and unable to execute simple tackles. I hate to say this, but there are some players on the UH defense who do not appear to have the talent or athleticism to play at the FBS level. Previous coaching staffs simply did not recruit well, hence these results.

The Ugly: Regarding that Dane Roy punt that pinned Memphis on their own two yard line: it did not hamper the Tigers in the least. Memphis simply marched 98 yards down the field and scored a touchdown right before halftime. The Scott and Holman Pawdcast said it best
What was your favorite part of that Memphis drive? Houston calling a timeout early to save Memphis 20 seconds under the naive belief we'd get the ball back? The needless PI on a ball that wasn't gonna be caught? The missed chances by DBs to make a play on the ball?
This drive was the season in a microcosm.

What It Means: The Cougars have secured themselves their first losing season since 2012.

Next up for the Cougars is a trip to Oklahoma to play Tulsa.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Twenty years ago tonight

Apropos of Louisiana State defeating Alabama last weekend and becoming the #1 team the college football playoff rankings, it's interesting to note that, exactly twenty years ago tonight, something rather improbable happened: the Houston Cougars defeated the LSU Tigers at Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge.
On this day in 1999, Kim Helton and the Houston Cougars beat LSU at Tiger Stadium, 20-7. The win assured UH of their second winning season in Helton’s 7 years. 
LSU drove 84 yards for a touchdown on their opening possesssion. Rondell Mealey finished it off with a 34-yard TD run. It was 7-0 Tigers and the sleepy, sparse crowd started to wake up. 
But that would be all of LSU’s excitement for the night: for the rest of the game, the Cougars kept the LSU rushing attack in check: after the first series, LSU ran for -12 yards total. UH dared LSU starting QB Josh Booty to throw it while keeping everything in front of them. 
Jason McKinley led the Cougar offense on three-straight scoring drives in the first half – perhaps the best sequence of the ’99 season (and maybe the entire Helton regime). In those three drives, McKinley went 9/11 for 117 yards and a score.
The Cougars would continue to stymie the Tiger defense after halftime - LSU would end up turning the ball over four times in the second half, including interceptions on their final three drives - to hold on for the victory.

While this sounds impressive - and to be sure, it is notable any time another team, especially from out of conference, beats the Tigers in "Death Valley" - this game really wasn't the shocker it at first appears to have been. For one thing, LSU was simply not good that year; they had lost seven games in a row coming into the Houston game and ended the season with a 3-8 record. The loss to Houston, in fact, was the final straw for embattled LSU head coach Gerry DiNardo.
In the locker room after the game, Gerry DiNardo was fired by LSU as the Tigers turned their sights to Nick Saban. Kim Helton would last 8 more days as the UH head coach before being dismissed by Chet Gladchuk.
Indeed, not even a win over LSU in Baton Rouge could save Kim Helton's job. Although the Coogs won seven games that season, none of those wins came against teams with a winning record and the schedule included a particularly demoralizing loss to 5-6 UAB (playing their first season as a member of Conference USA). The Cougars did not go to a bowl that season; Chet Gladchuk probably made up his mind to fire Helton well before the LSU game occurred.

They say that Saturday nights at Tiger Stadium are some of the most magical in college football. I'm not sure you could consider what happened on November 13, 1999 to be "magic," but it was definitely extraordinary.

(For another notable college football game whose 20th anniversary is approaching, take a moment to read this oral history of the November 1999 "bonfire game" between Texas and Texas A&M at Kyle Field. I was at that game - I was still technically enrolled at UT at the time - and it was indeed very emotional. I still remember it being so quiet in the stadium when the Aggie Marching Band silently walked off the field at the end of halftime that you could hear the clinking of the spurs on the seniors' boots from the upper deck. I still get the chills when I think about it.)

What a difference sixteen years makes

In November of 2003, the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County held a referendum seeking bonding authority to implement its METRO Solutions transit plan. The plan, which envisioned a significant expansion of its (at that time still unopened) light rail system, was extremely controversial.

It garnered significant, well-funded opposition, and narrowly passed: 51.7% in favor to 48.3% opposed. The geographic disparity of the vote - urban, largely-minority precinct were generally in favor, while suburban, largely-white precincts were opposed - was stark.

The amount of bonding authority being requested was $640 million ($891 million in 2019 dollars).

In November of 2019, METRO held a referendum seeking bonding authority to implement its METRONext transit plan. The plan, which was focused on bus-based improvements but still contained a light rail expansion element, was relatively uncontroversial. It attracted only token, underfunded opposition, and was overwhelmingly supported by voters.

Factoring in the results from Harris County as well as the bits of the METRO service area that are in Fort Bend, Waller and Montgomery Counties, last week's METRONext referendum passed by a margin of 68.2% to 31.8% - a split of just over 2 to 1. Geographically, the plan was supported in precincts representing all ethnicities and income levels, and opposition to the referendum was limited to a handful of suburban and rural areas.

The amount of bonding authority being requested in last Tuesday's vote was $3.5 billion.

Certainly, some of the difference in the level of support between the two plans may have to do with the contents of the plans themselves. The 2003 plan was centered on light rail expansion, which is by nature expensive and controversial, whereas the plan approved last week is more focused on bus rapid transit (which works well when done right but which is currently unproven in the region) as a high-capacity transit technology.

That said, I think the greater reason in the difference in support between the two plans is simple demographics. Houston, Harris County and the surrounding region have grown and changed significantly over the last sixteen years, and local voters are more supportive of public transportation today than they were in 2003.

Traffic congestion is currently the number one concern of area residents, and highway widening projects that were once routine are now generating significant opposition. Local voters are looking for other ways to get around.

Jeff Balke has more.

Thursday, November 07, 2019

Autonomous vehicles will only be as safe as their software

About a year and a half ago, an autonomous vehicle being tested in Arizona struck and killed a pedestrian. It was the first-ever fatality involving a self-driving car. Now, we may know why this incident occurred: the vehicle's software didn't know that humans could jaywalk:
The software inside the Uber self-driving SUV that killed an Arizona woman last year was not designed to detect pedestrians outside of a crosswalk, according to new documents released as part of a federal investigation into the incident. That’s the most damning revelation in a trove of new documents related to the crash, but other details indicate that, in a variety of ways, Uber’s self-driving tech failed to consider how humans actually operate.
As it turned out, the vehicle's software did detect the victim, 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg, with more than enough time to stop, but did not do so because it did not recognize that Herzberg was, in fact, a human. (The car did have a human back-up driver, Rafaela Vasquez, but she didn't see Herzberg until it was too late.)
It never guessed Herzberg was on foot for a simple, galling reason: Uber didn’t tell its car to look for pedestrians outside of crosswalks. “The system design did not include a consideration for jaywalking pedestrians,” the NTSB’s Vehicle Automation Report reads. Every time it tried a new guess, it restarted the process of predicting where the mysterious object—Herzberg—was headed. It wasn’t until 1.2 seconds before the impact that the system recognized that the SUV was going to hit Herzberg, that it couldn’t steer around her, and that it needed to slam on the brakes.
That triggered what Uber called “action suppression,” in which the system held off braking for one second while it verified “the nature of the detected hazard”—a second during which the safety operator, Uber’s most important and last line of defense, could have taken control of the car and hit the brakes herself. But Vasquez wasn’t looking at the road during that second. So with 0.2 seconds left before impact, the car sounded an audio alarm, and Vasquez took the steering wheel, disengaging the autonomous system. Nearly a full second after striking Herzberg, Vasquez hit the brakes.
Self-driving vehicles will only be as safe as the design of the systems, sensors and software upon which they operate. The software design flaw that occurred in this case - an inability to recognize a human outside of a marked crosswalk - is so obvious as to beggar belief, and makes me wonder how many less-obvious but nevertheless lethal programming errors might still be imbedded in Uber's self-driving software. This is one of many reasons why we still have a long way to go before self-driving cars become commonplace on streets and highways.

Uber settled a lawsuit with Herzberg's family shortly after her death, and has made changes to its safety program for automated vehicle testing.

There's also this tidbit:
Another factor in the crash was the Tempe road structure itself. Herzberg, wheeling a bicycle, crossed the street near a pathway that appeared purpose-built for walkers, but was 360 feet from the nearest crosswalk.
Yikes! Along with the safety of autonomous vehicles themselves, we cannot ignore the design of the environment in which they - and the pedestrians and bicyclists they are supposed to detect - travel. The safe deployment of self-driving cars could require significant and expensive modifications to streets, sidewalks, pathway and bikeways.

A lot of work remains to be done.

Houston 29, Central Florida 44

Another competitive game, but another loss.

The Good: The first half. The Cougars jumped out to a quick start, leading by as much as ten points on two different occasions in the first quarter thanks to two rushing touchdowns by RB Mulbah Car. The Coogs racked up 357 yards of total offense in the first half and led at the break.

The Bad: The second half. Central Florida rallied to score 21 unanswered points in the third quarter alone and shut down Houston's offense, allowing only one additional score late in the game. The Knights sacked QB Clayton Tune five times, including in the endzone late in in the game for a safety. The Houston offense was simply shut down in the second half; all of its possessions except one ended in a punt, turnover on downs, or a safety.

The Ugly: How bad was Houston's offense in the second half? Seven of the Coogs' eight second-half possessions ended in a punt, a turnover on downs, or the aforementioned safety.

In spite of the loss, the Cougars dominated the Knights in time of possession, 41:31 to 18:29. Further proof that TOP is the most meaningless statistic in football.

What It Means: In order for the Coogs to avoid their first losing season since 2013, they need to win their final three games. Considering that two of their final three opponents - Memphis and Navy - are ranked, that's looking highly unlikely.

The Cougars have a week off before entering the final quarter of the season.

Quito, Ecuador: the city and its subway

Curbed's Jeff Andrews writes a fascinating history about the capital of Ecuador, its historic urban form, the changes to that urban form caused by continued growth, and the fact that these changes have required the city to build a subway.
Looking down on the city of Quito from the teleférico that rides up the eastern slope of the Pichincha Volcano, buildings as high as 30 stories dot an urban landscape that includes the former citadels and centuries-old churches of what was once a Spanish colony. 
But someone looking at Quito from that same view 50 years ago would have seen a considerably smaller city full not of high rises but of single-family homes. 
The discovery of oil in Ecuador in the late 1960s triggered growth in the country’s capital that pushed the city not only out but up. Quito’s population has grown from 350,000 then to almost 3 million today. 
Now, Quito’s transformation from sleepy town to vibrant metropolis is entering perhaps its most important phase: The population explosion has created the need to overhaul the city’s transportation infrastructure. Having already moved its airport out of the city center, Quito will open a brand new subway line in 2020, just seven years after the first phase of construction began. The metro could usher Quito into a new era as a regional economic power.
Quito is highly geographically constrained, with Mount Pichincha to its west and the Tumbaco Valley to its east. While the city has seen some residential development spill over into the Valley in recent decades, these geographic constraints otherwise means that the city's urban core can really can only grow in two directions - north and south. As a result, Quito's core is over twenty miles in length, but only about two and a half miles in width at its narrowest points.

This, necessarily, means that north-south commutes are the norm, which in turn causes significant congestion:
Quito’s topography, shaped by the city’s position in a valley of the Andes, provides residents with breathtaking views of the two mountain peaks on either side of the city. But as the city’s population has ballooned, Quito’s topography also contributes to traffic problems weighing on the city. 
Take El Panecillo, a hill in the center of Quito, just south of the city’s historic Old Town. On top of it lay a 135-foot-tall aluminum statue of a winged version of the virgin Mary, known locally as the Virgin of Quito. The statue is visible throughout Quito and is a source of local pride.
The hill is also an impediment at the center of traffic flow between the north and the south, as is the Old City itself, which has narrow roads originally built in the 16th century. Numerous ravines snake down the mountains in the east and cut through Quito’s center before flowing down to the valleys in the west. The bridges and infrastructure over these ravines weren’t built for the number of cars that now use them, and the available public land for new roads is limited, narrow, and expensive. 
The result is, for some commuting Quiteños, a traffic nightmare.
“The economic booms and the consumer patterns in Quito are very car-oriented,” [former Secretary of Territory for the Municipality of Quito Jacobo] Herdoiza said. “One of the first priorities for a new labor force is to have their own car. So you have an increase in the number of vehicles that doesn’t match with improvements in road networks or in public transportation.”
I remember very clearly how chaotic Quito's transportation network when I spent my summers there in the late 1980s; the city, while already large, was much smaller then than it is today.

Beginning in the 1990s, municipal officials tried to combat congestion by improving public transportation options. The Trolebus, an electrically-powered Bus Rapid Transit line running in the median of major Quito thoroughfares such as Avenida Diez de Agosto, opened in 1995. Diesel-powered BRT lines, such as the Ecovia and Metrobus, opened thereafter. Given the fact that Ecuador is an impoverished country, this type of transit infrastructure was probably all that was fiscally feasible at the time. But as at-grade bus systems, the Trolebus and Ecovia were limited in terms of the parts of the city they could serve and the number of riders they could carry. These riders were, for the most part, laborers commuting from the working-class neighborhoods on the south side of town to the businesses and industries in the north.
These commuters have to deal with every topographical impediment the city center has. Only about a third of Quiteños own a car. The rest rely on existing public transportation—the bus system and the bus rapid transit (BRT) system, or trolley buses that run north-south along major avenues. Low-income people in the south who work in the north often have to take multiple modes of transportation, spending as much as 20 percent of their income on that transportation. The commute can be as long as two hours each way, with delays caused by bus drivers who, Correa says, often bypass stops with fewer passengers in favor of more crowded stops that bring in more fares. Laborers who spend four hours on a bus every day not only waste time they could be working or being with their families, but they’re also exhausted during work hours from the long commute.
Thus, the Quito Metro, which is completely underground and which will run for about 14 miles along a north-south route featuring 15 stations. The project began construction in 2013 and is expected to open in 2020. Building a full subway - especially one beneath and earthquake-prone city - is an ambitious project for a relatively low-income country. But it could be transformative to both Quito's mobility and its urban form.
The metro alone will not solve these problems, of course. Because it only runs north-south through the city center, it won’t do much to alleviate congestion along Quito’s second busiest commuting route—people in the valleys who drive to Quito’s business district in the middle of the city center. 
And the metro stops also are not close to each other—1.5 kilometers apart, on average—so the metro will need to integrate into the existing system to truly meet commuters’ needs. At worst, the bus system and BRT could end up competing with the metro instead of working in concert with it, jeopardizing the financial sustainability of the subway.
If local officials can't get a subway, a BRT network and local bus systems to work together to provide complementary and interconnected services - e.g. longer north-south trips on subway, shorter north-south trips on BRT, and east-west and feeder trips on local bus - rather than competing services, then they're doing it wrong (and they need to hire someone like me to help them figure it out).
But if it works, the metro could unlock Quito’s potential to be a regional economic power. New developments around the metro stops are already well underway, which could create pockets of urban density that allow for more walkability and less reliance on cars and buses, something that younger Quiteños desire.
Quito already sees itself as something of a hidden treasure in Latin America, with a budding nightlife and restaurant scenes, and tourist attractions to rival any city on the continent. With two new ways of getting around the city, and phase one of an ambitious new metro system that took only seven years to complete, Quito may not be “hidden” for much longer.
Just another reason why I need to go back.

Saturday, November 02, 2019

Astros fall to Nationals in 2019 World Series

For the first time in the 115-year history of the World Series (and for that matter, any seven-game NHL Stanley Cup or NBA Finals series), the road team won every game. Unfortunately for the Astros, the last game happened to be in Houston.

I guess I shouldn't be too upset. This is only the third time the Astros have even been to the World Series in their 58-season history. And the Washington Nationals were certainly no slouch: they had the league's best overall record since late May and blazed through the postseason, upsetting the favored Dodgers and sweeping the Cardinals.

But still... The Astros won a league-best 107 games, had a 60-21 record at home, were being compared favorably to the 1927 Yankees, and were favored to win this year's Fall Classic. The 2019 World Series was theirs to lose. And lose it they did.

Manager CJ Hinch will forever be questioned for his decision to replace Zack Greinke with Will Harris in the seventh inning of Game Seven, a decision that changed the course of the game. But that decision aside, the reason the Astros couldn't clinch their second championship is easy to pinpoint: they simply could not manufacture runs.

In their three wins, the Astros stranded 24 runners on base and were 11 of 28 with runners in scoring poisition. In their four losses, they left 36 men on base and where an abysmal 4-19 RISP. They simply couldn't bring runners home. Jose Altuve, for all of his postseason heroics, had exactly one (!) RBI the entire World Series.

This isn't to completely excuse the pitching - the bullpen's meltdowns in Games Two and Seven were inexcusable, and when the time comes for Justin Verlander to be considered for the Hall of Fame, the fact that he is 0-6 in World Series games with a cumulative ERA of 5.68 will need to be taken into account. But if the Astros lineup, whose bats went through cold spells throughout the entire postseason, could get a few more of those aforementioned stranded runners home during the course of the series, the pitchers would have had more room for error.

All in all, the better team won. I'm just sorry it wasn't the Astros.

ESPN's Brad Doolittle describes the Astros as a team that fell just short of true greatness, while Sportsmap's Fred Faour notes that this loss should remind local fans why the 2017 championship was so special. Paper City's Chris Baldwin describes the scene in the locker room after "the most talented team in Houston Astros history" failed to win a championship.

Houstonia's Timothy Malcolm shares his thoughts, as does the Houston Press's Jeff Balke. The Chronicle ranks this game 4th on their list of most heartbreaking Houston sports defeats; I will have to decide where it falls on my list of top Houston sports chokejobs*.

*Given that fivethirtyeight.com gave the Astros a 81% of winning the World Series after Game 5, the 'Stros had two chances - both at home - to win one game, and had a 2-0 lead with eight outs remaining in Game 7: yes, I think this qualifies as a chokejob.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Houston 31, #16 SMU 34

I will say this about the Cougars: while it's been a rough year for therm, they've generally been competitive in every game they've played so far. Such was the case against the SMU Mustangs last Thursday, as the Cougars pulled within 3 late in the fourth quarter and even had a chance to win in the waning minutes. Alas.

The Good: Marquez Stevenson scored on a 75-yard catch-and-run from Clayton Tune in the third quarter, and Marquez Stevenson did the same from 96 yards in the fourth quarter. The Coogs actually outgained the Ponies in total yards, 510 to 385.

The Bad: The Cougars turned the ball over three times, and the Mustangs turned two of those turnovers into touchdowns. Clayton Tune was also sacked a disheartening seven times. The UH defense surrendered a 62-yard touchdown run to SMU running back Xavier Jones.

The Ugly: The cougars have generally played clean football this season, but during this game they got flagged eleven times for 129 penalty yards.

What It Means: Not much. It's another loss in a season that has basically become a lost cause.

The Cougars now travel to Orlando to face Central Florida.

New Orleans's new airport terminal will be a flying foodie's paradise

New Orleans's Louis Armstrong International Airport is about to open a new passenger terminal to replace its dingy and decrepit existing one, and it only makes sense that the new facility will feature some of the Crescent City's best culinary offerings for hungry travelers.
The $1 billion terminal was designed by the late Argentine architect César Pelli and will replace the original terminal, which was constructed in 1959.  
The 972,000-square-foot structure features a long list of upgrades, including free high-speed internet; chargers at half of the seats in the gate areas; water bottle refilling stations; parents’ rooms; and music venues both pre- and post-security. 
But the upgrade we’re most excited about is the food. There will be 40 retail stores throughout the terminal, including some standout dining venues. Sure, the standard airport fare like Auntie Anne’s, Chili’s, and Panda Express are in the mix, but there are some notable culinary highlights that will likely have us heading to the airport a little early the next time we’re flying out of New Orleans.
One of the centerpiece venues will be Leah’s Kitchen, an homage to the late, self-taught Creole chef Leah Chase, who died earlier this year at age 96. The New York Times reported that Chase’s grandson, Edgar Chase IV, will operate the restaurant, which will serve classic Creole cuisine. 
Chase’s storied restaurant Dooky Chase’s, located in the city’s Tremé neighborhood, has an outpost in the airport’s old terminal, but that will shut down when the old terminal does on November 6. At Leah’s Kitchen, diners will be able to indulge in Leah’s famed fried chicken and gumbo to the backdrop of a large mural depicting her image.
Another star player will be Folse Market from Louisiana native chef John Folse, who has become a global ambassador for Cajun cuisine. Together with New York chef Rick Tromato, Folse is at the helm of the upscale Restaurant R’evolution in New Orleans’s French Quarter. The forthcoming Folse Market at the new terminal will serve seafood, po’boys, charcuterie, coffee and wine; it will also sell merchandise.
Showy chef Emeril Lagasse will have a presence at the new terminal, as will Carrollton landmark Ye Olde College InnCafé du Monde will have an airport outpost to cater to your beignet needs, and Angelo Brocato will be serving its famous Italian gelatos and desserts. Locally-based chains such as PJ's Coffee and Smoothie King will naturally be represented as well.

Mixed in with familiar New Orleans establishments will be some newer offerings:
One of the newcomers we’re most excited about is the highly acclaimed New Orleans venue MoPho from chef Michael Gulotta, which marries southern favorites like shrimp and grits with Vietnamese standards, including, of course, pho soup. MoPho’s interpretation of Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches offers fillings such as “Nola hot sausage,” fried shrimp, and fried oyster with more traditional banh mi fixings.
But what if you just want a drink while you're waiting for your flight? The new MSY has you covered there, as well:
And of course, no trip to or from New Orleans would be complete without a proper cocktail. Bar Sazerac will be serving them up in a sophisticated, speakeasy-style setting. And for one last hit of live music as only New Orleans can deliver, at Heritage School of Music you can get a drink while musicians play on stage.
The new 35-gate airport terminal is the largest infrastructure project that the City of New Orleans has undertaken since building the Superdome. It was originally scheduled to open last May, but due to construction delays will now open November 6th. It is located on the north side of the airport property (the old terminal is located on the south side); more information about the facility, including how to access it, can be found here.

I was looking forward to checking it out in an upcoming trip to because it was designed by one of my favorite architects. Now I'm looking forward to grabbing a bite to eat there, as well!

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Houston 24, Connecticut 17

The Cougars traveled to East Hartford, Connecticut and eked out a seven-point victory against a really bad UConn program. It's still a better outcome than the last time the Coogs
played there.

The Good: Cougar safety Grant Stuard made his presence known, accounting for 15 tackles, including six solo tackles and two tackles for loss. RBs Kyle Porter an Bryson Smith combined for 91 rushing yards and two touchdowns. Punter Dane Roy continues to have one of the best legs in the nation, averaging 47.5 yards on his six punts.

The Bad: The fact that Roy had to punt six times tells you what you need to know about the offense. With QB Clayton Tune still nursing a hamstring injury, it was up to the head coach's son, Logan Holgerson, to run the offense. He completed only 7 of 15 passes for 123 yards and one touchdown, and the Coogs converted only 3 of 11 third down attempts. The UH defense continued to be woeful, as the Huskies outgained the Cougars, 438 yards to 284.

The Ugly: Pretty much the entire game. The Huskies are one of the worst programs in all of FBS, and the Cougars played down to their level of competition. The result was a boring slog of a game.

What it means: The Cougars now have their third win and first conference victory of the season. Looking at the upcoming schedule, however, this could very well be their last win of 2019.

This may also be the last time the Cougars play the Huskies for a while, if ever. Connecticut is leaving the ACC in 2020 to return its basketball program to the Big East; this move may sound the death knell for its struggling football program.

Next up is a Thursday night game at TDECU against an SMU Mustang program that is ranked for the first time since the Death Penalty.

I'll never get tired of this

It's always good when the Astros clinch a trip to the World Series (this is their third appearance). It's even better when it's against the New York Yankees and their arrogant, classless fanbase. But to accomplish these feats via an amazing walk-off two-run homer against one of the best closers in baseball? Absolutely insane.

Given what it meant, Altuve's blast instantly became one of the all-time great moments in Houston sports history. Housto Sportsmap's Fred Faour, in fact, puts this at #3 on his list of the top five most memorable moments in Houston sports history, just behind Alex Bregman's walk-off single in the wild Game 5 of the 2017 World Series and the Rockets' winning their first NBA title (over another New York team!) in 1994. (I generally agree with his picks and rankings, although it is incomplete without Mario Elie's Kiss of Death in the 1995 NBA Playoffs; for that matter, Faour could have expanded his list to include Chris Burke's 18th-inning walk-off in the 2005 NLDS or the "Game of the Century" between Houston and UCLA in 1968.) 

The bottom line is that Jose Altuve gave Houston sports fans one of the most amazing and unforgettable moments they've ever witnessed, as evidenced by some of the fan reactions being put on YouTube (the radio call is a classic, too).

I am completely amazed by how the Astros have absolutely owned the Yankees in the postseason since they've switched leagues: the play-in game in 2015, the 2017 ALCS, and now this. I'd love to see this trend continue, because the New York Yankees are evil and their fanbase sucks.

As meaningful as Altuve's heroics are, however, his home run will become even more legendary if the Astros actually complete their quest and win a second World Series. Alas, things didn't go well for them in Game 1 tonight against the red-hot Washington Nationals, as pitcher Garrit Cole had his worst game since May and the Astros left 11 runners stranded on base. I'm hoping for better things tomorrow.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Houston 23, #25 Cincinnati 38

This was another competitive effort by the Cougars - they found themselves trailing by only five points midway through the fourth quarter - but a interception returned by Cincinnati for touchdown late in the game sealed the Coogs' fourth loss of the season.

The Good: The weather. The first true cold front of the fall rolled in the day before, providing a mild, sunny day for the game.

On a day that featured multiple quarterbacks for UH, wide receiver Bryson Smith got behind center and threw one pass - a beautiful 50-yard touchdown strike to Jeremy Singleton. UH special teams blocked a Cincinnati field goal, while Dane Roy averaged 54 yards on his four punts.

The Bad: Houston turned the ball over five times, allowing the Bearcats to score 21 points off turnovers. When the Cougars weren't turning the ball lover, their receivers were dropping passes, including some that should have been easy completions. Houston's defense didn't have a good answer for Cincinnati QB Desmond Ridder, who ended the day 14 of 24 for 263 yards and three TD passes.

The Ugly: Houston's clock management at the end of the first half. They had two time outs remaining, and could have used them to at least get into field goal range. Instead, they just let the clock tick away. I expected better from an experienced coach like Dana Holgorsen.

Also, the officiating. What should have been a clear targeting penalty against Cincinnati in the first half was overturned, and a ticky-tack hit out of bounds call against Houston turned what should have been a fourth down into a first down and eventual Bearcat touchdown. Shortly thereafter there was a blatant hold by a Cinci lineman that everybody in the stadium except the refs saw. I'm not going to claim that any of these calls changed the outcome of the game, but these referees (and the league as a whole) should be ashamed of themselves for their incompetence.

What It Means: The Cougars are now 0-2 in conference and staring a losing season the face. They now travel to New England to face Connecticut.

Wednesday, October 02, 2019

Houston 46, North Texas 25

New quarterback? No problem! The Cougars got back to their winning ways by upsetting North Texas (yes, the Mean Green were favored) in Denton, notching their first win against an FBS opponent for the season and emphatically answering questions as to the team's "will to fight" after starting quarterback D'Eriq King opted to redshirt for the rest of the 2019 season.

The Good: With King no longer behind center, it was up to second-string quarterback Clayton Tune to show that he could direct the offense. He performed well, completing 16 of 20 pass attempts for 124 yards and a touchdown. He also rushed for 100 yards. Patrick Carr ran for another 139 yards and three scores. The UH defense, meanwhile, held UNT's rushing attack to less than 100 yards on the evening.

It was a great night for UH special teams, as they scored touchdowns on a kick return (Marquez Stevenson, 82 yards) and a punt return (Bryson Smith, 60 yards) - the first time since October 1973 that the Coogs had two such returns for touchdowns in the same game.

The Bad: The Cougars’ pass defense continued to struggle, as UNT quarterback Mason Fine lit them up for 353 yards and two touchdowns. UNT actually outgained the Coogs in this game, 456 yards to 359 (however, these totals do not include kick return yards).

When the UH secondary wasn't covering poorly, they were tackling poorly. UNT’s final touchdown occurred because Cougar safety Deontay Anderson hit UNT wide receiver Jason Pirtle but failed to wrap him up, allowing Pirtle to bounce off of him and walk into the endzone.

The Cougar defense’s 21-game streak of recording at least one turnover also came to an end, as neither team turned the ball over in this game.

The Beautiful: the Green Brigade and the Spirit of Houston joined together at halftime for this wonderful rendition of America the Beautiful:

The announced attendance of 30,123 was an Apogee Stadium record.

What It Means: This was a much-needed win for the Cougars, and Clayton Tune showed that he is capable of running Dana Holgorsen's offense for the remainder of the season. UH now gets a much-needed week off before hosting Cincinnati on October 12.

The all-time series between Houston and North Texas is now tied at seven games apiece. The next edition of the Mean Green Cougar Red Bowl will occur at TDECU Stadium next year.

Puerto Vallarta video

I put together a short (under six minute) video of last summer's trip to Puerto Vallarta, featuring the beach view from our timeshare, a Pacific sunset, dive-bombing pelicans, a trip to Las Caletas, and a view of the city from a party boat. Enjoy!

I'm also working on a video for the 2018 Eurotrip and will hopefully have that up soon.

I was that idiot

You know the people who try to drive during extreme weather events and then get stuck in their cars due to rising floodwaters? The people we laugh at when we see them on the news? "Why did that idiot try to drive in this rainstorm? Doesn't he know that this city's roads flood during heavy rains!?"

Well, a couple of Thursdays ago, during the deluge caused by the remnants of Tropical Storm Imelda, I was that idiot.

That morning I went to TxDOT's district headquarters for a meeting. I wasn't particularly concerned about the weather at that point - the deluge forecast for the previous day had never materialized, and it was not raining at all during my trip to the meeting. I noticed on the radar that there was a rain band sagging southward through the city but I didn't think too much of it at the time. My hope was that it would pass through fairly quickly while I was at the meeting and clear out before I made my way back to the office. I wanted to get back there and wrap up a few things as quickly as I could, because Corinne and I were scheduled to fly to New Orleans that afternoon.

It wasn't too long before the storms arrived. The lights in the meeting room flickered with every lighting strike, and the windows rattled with the thunder. The guy from METRO sitting next to me received an alert on his phone that his agency had just suspended all bus and rail service. I received a text from Southwest Airlines informing me that my flight had been delayed one hour. The radar app on my phone showed ominous hues of orange and red. Things weren't looking good.

By the time the meeting had ended, the city was facing a serious flooding situation. However, my desire to get back to my office and try to make my flight overrode what should have been common sense. The radar indicated that things might be about to clear up; if I stay off the below-grade freeways and keep to major surface streets, I reasoned to myself, I should be able to make to back to the office.

So I (stupidly) headed down Washington Avenue towards Shepherd, and then made my way onto Kirby. Water was high in places, and the downpour was torrential, but people were slowly making their way through. It wasn't until I turned off of Kirby onto West Alabama that I began to get concerned: the water had gotten so high that only the very middle of the street was passable, and the rainfall was so heavy I could hardly see in front of me (the clearing that I thought I saw on my phone's radar app had, needless to say, never materialized). The further I drove, the deeper into the water I found myself. The water got to be so high that it was reaching the belts on my car's engine, causing them to squeal. It was only a matter of time before the water would cause my engine to stall out completely; it was at that point, coincidentally, that Southwest sent me a text informing me that my flight had been canceled altogether.

I was only a few blocks away from my office, but it was obvious I wasn't going to make it; I needed to find a place to stop and hopefully wait out the deluge. So I turned off of West Alabama and on to Buffalo Speedway, found a median opening at the street's highest point, parked and waited. I also took a couple of pictures:

The rain continued to come down, and the water continued to rise. I watched the curb of the median opening slowly disappear beneath the floodwater. Every time a truck or other large vehicle with enough clearance to navigate the floodwaters would drive by, it would send a wave of water crashing into my car, causing it to feel like it was about to float away. I continued to nervously watch my phone's radar app, and actually began to give thought to abandoning the car and sloshing my way in the rain and floodwater towards higher ground, such as a nearby building or parking garage.

Why didn't I just stay at TxDOT's office? I would have been high and dry there. Like I said, I was that idiot.

Thankfully, the rain began to let up, and I took a short video documenting my stupidity:

Buffalo Speedway drained relatively quickly once the rain stopped; before too long I was able to continue on to my office with no problem whatsoever. But still: I never should have put myself in that position to begin with. It just wasn't worth it.

Of course, as I mentioned in my previous post, our trip to New Orleans never happened. Southwest let us reschedule for later this month.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Houston 31, Tulane 38

Good thing that the remnants of Tropical Storm Imelda caused my flight to New Orleans to be canceled so I didn't have to witness this travesty in person. It was hard enough to have to watch on TV.

The Good: The Coogs scored on the first play from scrimmage and jumped out to a 28-7 lead early in the second quarter. D'Eriq King threw for 229 yards and two touchdown passes, while the Cougar ground attack accounted for 304 yards and two more touchdowns on the evening. The UH defense recovered a Tulane fumble, making it 21 games in a row - the longest active streak in FBS - that the Cougars have recorded a turnover.

The Bad: In what has become a pattern for the Coogs this season, Houston was completely impotent in the second half. The Green Wave scored 24 unanswered points to take the lead, 28-31, midway through the fourth. During that stretch the Cougars missed two field goals and punted three times.  The Cougars finally made a field goal of their own to tie the game with 21 seconds left. It looked like things were headed to overtime, but then this happened:

It was a stunning and bitter way to lose, but let's face it: after blowing a 21-point lead, the Cougars honestly had no business winning that game at all.

The Ugly: Third Quarters. As Ryan explains, ugly is the only description. Through four games the Cougars have scored a total of 10 points - and given up 42 - during the third quarter. Something is horribly wrong in the locker room if the team consistently comes out flat like this.

What It Means: The Cougars are now 1-3 on the season and at this point are probably looking at a losing record. This is perhaps one of the reasons quarterback D'Eriq King made a stunning announcement earlier this week that he has decided to take advantage of the NCAA's new redshirt rules and sit out the remainder of the 2019 season. Wide receiver Keith Corbin made a similar announcement.

Both players claim that they have no plans to transfer and will return to the team in 2020; I honestly have a hard time believing that. Coach Dana Holgorsen, for his part, claims that these developments do not mean that the Cougars are giving up on the 2019 season. However, given everything else that is wrong with this team right now, it's hard to believe that this team can be even remotely competitive without its main offensive weapon.

At the very least, the brutal Sunday-Saturday-Friday-Thursday stretch of six-day weeks is over (thanks alot, ESPN!). Next up for the Coogs is a trip to Denton for the 2019 Edition of the Mean Green Cougar Red Bowl.

The best Saturday Night Live skits

The 45th season of Saturday Night Live starts this weekend (alas, it will not include Leslie Jones).

A few weeks ago stacker.com put up this slideshow (which was republished by the Houston Chronicle's website, because the dying newspaper relies on slideshows to inflate its pageview count) that lists fifty of the greatest Saturday Night Live skits in the 44-year history of the late-night comedy show. Stacker identifies these sketches as those "that have had the largest cultural comedic impact, those that bring humor to more serious social issues, and political satire at its finest. Added to that are skits that generated Emmy awards for the actors, and several funny pieces that have become a historic part of our social fabric."

To be fair, most of the "sketches" listed in this slideshow are actually recurring characters, but a lot of the classics are nevertheless acknowledged: the Coneheads, Gumby, Buckwheat, Wayne's World, the Church Lady, the Chippendales Audition, Schweddy BallsDick in A Box, More Cowbell, and, of course, Matt Foley.

But there are a handful of great SNL sketches missing from this list - wither Stuart Smalley's Affirmations or the Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer? - including several that I've always thought to be among SNL's best (a handful of these skits do appear on other greatest SNL skits lists). Here are some of my favorites:

White Like Me (1984): Eddie Murphy discovers what it is like to be white in this take on race relations that is just as hilarious - and, sadly, relevant - today as it was back in 1984.

President Reagan, Mastermind (1986): At the height of the Iran-Contra scandal, Phil Hartman plays a Ronald Reagan who knew a lot more than he led on to the public.

Happy Fun Ball (1991): This long list of dangerous side effects of an apparently innocuous toy is reminiscent of your standard pharmaceutical commercial listing the myriad side effects, which I guess is the point. As far as I we know, Happy Fun Ball is still legal in 16 states!

Schiller Visions: Hidden Camera Commercials (1991): What happens when you inform somebody that the coffee they've been drinking is made from freeze-dried crystals, rather than freshly ground, and record their reaction on hidden camera? Most people might be good-natured about it, but Chris Farley's character was not.

Wake Up and Smile (1995): The teleprompter malfunctions, and a pair of blow-dried morning talk show hosts quickly lose their bearings. This TV studio - meets - Lord of The Flies sketch is Will Farrell at his best.

Neurotology (2015): This pitch-perfect parody of a 1990 promotional video by a certain religious organization founded by a science fiction writer that shall not be named (I don't want to get sued) came out right after HBO aired a documentary about said religious organization.

Black Jeopardy with Tom Hanks (2016): This one is relatively recent, which is why it might not appear on many lists. As the 2016 presidential election tossed America's racial tensions into the foreground, a MAGA-hat-wearing blue collar white guy discovers that has a lot in common with black people. Maybe race doesn't divide us as much as economic status unites us.

What are some of your all-time favorite sketches from Saturday Night Live?

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Houston 24, #20 Washington State 31

The Battle of the Cougars turned out to be surprisingly close, but the end result is still the Coogs' second loss of the season.

The Good: The first half. Houston led at halftime, 14-7, thanks to a suffocating run defense that held Washington State to ten rushing yards (Washington State gained only 49 rushing yards the entire game) and an amazing Gleson Sprewell interception in the endzone late in the first half that kept Wazzu from tying the game just before halftime. D'Eriq King connected with Marquez Stevenson on a 13-yard touchdown pass midway through the second quarter.

The Bad: The second half. The local Cougars were held scoreless in the third quarter while the Pullman Cougars found the endzone twice to retake the lead for good. UH simply didn't have an answer for WSU quarterback Anthony Gordon, who ended the night 36 of 48 with 440 yards and three touchdowns. Houston also fumbled the ball twice.

D'Eriq King's passing struggles continue, as he was 13 of 24 for only 170 yards and one TD. King did score two rushing touchdowns, including one late in the game that gave the Coogs a faint ray of hope. WSU, however, was then able to run out the clock for the win.

The Ugly: Penalties. There were more flags on the NRG Stadium field than at UN's headquarters in New York. The refs really didn't let either team get into a rhythm and the two teams combined for 19 penalties. Washington State was actually called for more fouls, but the Pac-12 officiating crew certainly did Houston no favors. A holding call away from the play negated what would have been a 72-yard touchdown run by D'Eriq King in the third quarter, a questionable spot on third town led to the end of what was a promising UH drive, and what looked to be a clear targeting call was overturned.

This game at NRG Stadium was technically a "home" game for Houston, but it was hard to tell given the Washington State commercials throughout the game, the WSU fans who ended up with better seats than UH fans, and the announcer that seemed more excited whenever Wazzu got a first down than when UH did. The Friday night time slot was stupid, and don't get me started on the pre-game honor ceremony that featured former Texas AD DeLoss Dodds, who historically has been one of UH's biggest antagonists. What would have been a great game experience at TDECU turned into a poor, if not downright insulting, one at NRG.

Ryan Monceaux and Brad Towns explain in this podcast why the UH Athletics Department needs to stop farming out the program's marquee home games to NRG Stadium for the benefit of a game whose title sponsor is a multilevel marketing outfit. The only teams Houston should agree to play at NRG are Texas, Texas A&M, LSU, Oklahoma or Alabama. Every other game needs to be played on campus at TDECU, i.e. the stadium we built for a reason.

What It Means: For the second time this season, the Cougars performed admirably against a ranked Power Five school. Just a fewer mistakes here or there, and the Coogs might have actually won this one. Hopefully the team learns from this tough experience as they continue to rebuild under the new coaching staff.

Things get no easier for Houston, as they travel to New Orleans to play their conference opener against a solid Tulane team on Thursday night.